The Ontario minister of education has appointed a special team to look at homophobia and sexual harassment in the province’s schools.
“What I have asked them to do is to go back to stakeholders in the community and ask about sexual assault, gender or attacks on the basis of sexual orientation,” says Kathleen Wynne. “We haven’t tackled that as deeply as we’d like.”
The Safe Schools Action Team — led by Liz Sandals, the Liberal MPP for Guelph and the former president of the Ontario Public School Board Association — was originally formed in 2004 to rewrite the province’s Safe Schools Act. The committee was disbanded before the October 2007 election and reformed in February of this year.
Sandals says the group is not seeking evidence of homophobia in schools.
“We don’t need to be convinced there’s an issue,” she says. “We don’t want to waste our time demonstrating there’s a problem. What we’re trying to identify is people who have solutions.”
Sandals says that in order to put the issue of evidence to rest, the group obtained the results of a study by the London, Ontario branch of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The study tracked students in 23 schools in southwestern Ontario from Grade 9 to Grade 11 around sexual harassment and homophobia.
“CAMH takes you away from the misconception that this is only a problem in a few Toronto schools,” says Sandals. “Homophobia can be a huge problem in rural schools.”
Sandals says the study shows that one-third of male students and 22 percent of female students in Grade 9 reported being the target of homophobic comments. By Grade 11 the percentages had dropped respectively to 30 percent and 12 percent.
The study also showed that 32 percent of boys in Grade 9 reported being the target of physical bullying by other boys, and 16 percent of girls reported being the physical target of other girls.
“You could read into that that some of it could be homophobic bullying,” says Sandals.
By Grade 11 the numbers for boys had dropped to 14 percent and for girls to six percent. But Sandals says that doesn’t necessarily represent a drop in homophobia.
“Kids are maturing,” she says. “They’re less likely to use physical behaviour. Chronic bullies are more likely to use verbal and social methods.
“The kids are often afraid there will be retaliation if they tell and that nobody will do anything anyway.”
Sandals says the group will be looking at public and Catholic schools, as well as both French and English schools. She says it will also be talking to groups within the queer community in Ontario.
“We don’t have a big travel budget but we will be going to northwest Ontario and the Ottawa area,” she says. “The world isn’t only Toronto.”
Sandals says the group will be issuing its report before Christmas.
Wynne says the ministry is investing $43.7 million this school year into bullying prevention training for teachers and administrators and into a partnership with Kids Help Phone to provide online and phone counselling on a 24-7 basis. She says the ministry will continue to provide the same funding in years to come.
Wynne also points to the $28.7 million the ministry provided to school boards in the 2005-2006 school year for bullying prevention programs in every school. But she admits that the ministry has no mechanism in place to monitor the programs beyond a requirement that individual boards report back to the ministry.
“The boards knew that was coming,” says Wynne. “The reality is boards knew they had to get serious about this. My assumption is and everything we’ve seen points to boards using their resources as they were meant. This is not something boards needed to be convinced about.”
The Durham District School Board — the district where 13-year-old queer student Shaquille Wisdom committed suicide in October — could not provide a list of specific programs implemented since Wisdom’s suicide.
But communications manager Andrea Pidwerbecki says the board has ongoing programs in place. She says that teachers held a professional development day on Apr 3 including sessions on “How LGBT Youth Are Placed at Risk.”
She also points to the 12 gay-straight alliances in the district’s schools and to Students Together Against Racism, which she says also focus on homophobia. Pidwerbecki says students in Durham Region also held an annual conference, this year in conjunction with a queer community group which she was unable to name.